We’ve Taken Out The Glue.

A post on teaching cause and effect in history

I believed at least some of my history GCSE students when assured me they really did revise for their mock exams. However, the ‘splurge’ some deposited on the page didn’t look much like the careful explanations of cause and effect they had been taught to write. They also totally bombed the simple chronology question for which they just have to put five events in order.

But why wasn’t their revision paying dividends? I had already introduced regular factual tests and was happy that my classes were remembering more of what they learnt and I could see the benefit of this in their ongoing assimilation of the events and better informed written work. Therefore last year I tried to solve the problems presented by the basic chronology question. I asked my class to learn the key events for their topic in order, for a homework. Then, to stop them forgetting, I asked them to practise putting the events (written on cards) in order as a starter activity once or twice a week and continued every now and then even when we had moved onto new topics. Most of my current year 11 class, reaching the end of our study of China 1911-1989, can put about 30 event cards into a pretty accurate order. Their grasp of chronology clearly showed through in the mock exam results.

However, by this time I had realised that the failure with the chronology question was actually just a symptom of a deeper problem. This realisation dawned when I tried to get my classes to see that they could work out the order of events by thinking about the logic of the story.

“Look, the Kapp Putsch must come after the Treaty of Versailles because it was a reason right-wingers staged the coup in the first place”.

Each time I’d say something like this I got that feeling my class heard the words but not my meaning. This was perplexing as I knew that I had never learnt the chronology of the events using cards, it was the logic of the story that allowed me to get the events in order. So why didn’t that work for my students?

I gave my class a flow diagram of events. Their task was to explain the link between each event (the logic of the story). My goodness they hated this task (I wrote about it here) and it became quite apparent that (despite my best teaching efforts) my students had learnt the events as isolated incidents. This explained the problems some students had with the mock exam. Telling them they needed to ‘learn the technique’ to do better next time rather misses the point. Many wrote about the events, (not the causes or effects of the events) because they hadn’t revised the causes or effects and couldn’t work them out. This seems like an interesting example of the way the knowledge of novice learners is ‘inflexible’ as explained by the cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham.

“When new material is first learned, the mind is biased to remember things in concrete forms that are difficult to apply to new situations. This bias seems best overcome by the accumulation of a greater store of related knowledge, facts, and examples.”

That I could appreciate the ‘logic of the story’ shows I have accumulated a greater store of related knowledge, facts and examples than my students. It is fascinating that a simple chronology question can so effectively expose a more fundamental issue with the grasp of a complex web of events. Ironically, because we carefully teach and students dutifully learn the causes of the events that are most likely to appear in the exam, you can’t necessarily tell how well they understand the flow of events using the exam’s ‘cause’ questions. One solution often used is to identify the biggest events and take the time necessary, perhaps using card sorts, diamond nines (or whatever else occurs to you) to teach for a more complex understanding of their causes. However, for our IGCSE paper you can be asked the causes or effects of many events and each one can’t get ‘the full treatment’. Also we presume that by teaching ‘causes’ of key events the child must automatically be making connections back to the relevant previous events. In fact, as Willingham predicts my students could spend a whole lesson learning the causes of the Kapp Putsch (including the Treaty of Versailles) and fail to mention the Putsch when subsequently asked to list effects of the Versailles Treaty.

I had a revelatory moment recently. I had really pushed my year 10 class (studying Weimar Germany to 1923) to explain back to me how each key event so far could link to one previously. On the spur of the moment I decided to set a homework in which the class just ‘told the story’ of 1918-1923. They had to use all the events listed and each event had to be linked to at least one previous event. I was chuffed with the product of their (and my) efforts. My previous initiatives had ensured my classes tended to remember previous events but across the ability range there was now something more. My focus on ‘the logic of the story’ had led to better grasp of the causal web of these particular events.

This made me realise something more fundamental that seems problematic with the way we teach history. Because GCSE wants our students ‘to analyse’ events we teach them pre-packaged analysis. I now wonder how I could ever have thought that learning causes or effects was intellectually superior to learning to describe the events themselves. Further, I now wonder if by de-emphasising the ‘story’ of history in favour of teaching analysis (cause and effect etc) we have taken out ‘the glue’ that holds events together and actively hindered childrens’ ability to move beyond their tendency to remember the events in isolation.

Do we get things back to front? We tell our classes that real history involves giving reasons for our arguments when in fact our arguments emerge from our complex grasp of ‘the story’. We tell our classes that a ‘skill’ of history is to come up with ‘links’ between the events when it is because we know ‘the story’ so well that we can see the links.

History shouldn’t be ‘one damn thing after another’ and I think telling the story is the way to avoid that.


Does our teaching look a bit like this?




8 thoughts on “We’ve Taken Out The Glue.

  1. Not much to add, but absolutely. I think I’ve neglected this myself although a colleague did raise it with me the other day. Humans love stories!

  2. Could the use of an enquiry based approach address some of these issues and aid student understanding of the ‘story’ of the content?

    We try to break down GCSE units into enquiry questions, ‘Why did democracy fail in Germany after WW1?’, ‘How did the Nazis come to power in Germany?’ etc. I’ve found explicitly framing content as part of the exploration of these questions helps students glue the events together.

    However this approach is often sacrificed in place of exam practice when time gets tight.

    1. To some extent I do frame the content through enquiry questions. I purposely touched on this in my post. I don’t think the focus on a specific question helps with this problem as there are so many events that would need this focus. As I say I even wonder if the focus on key questions de-emphasises the ‘story’ more generally that actually helps the pupil to see the complex web of events.
      Perhaps the IGCSE is less usual in that it is not just the big events that might come up as cause snd effects questions which means you realise that your focus using enquiry Qs on the main events hadn’t helped them to answer all the other possibilities.

  3. A great post, Heather. I agree that analysis in History should usually come secondary to narrative. To the extent that people find analysing historical issues interesting it is almost always because it helps confirm or challenge some sort of pre-existing narrative. I’d say that students’ interest in my lessons almost directly correlates with their grasp of some sort of (however imperfect) narrative – so we omit that at our peril!

    It raises very interesting questions about progression in History, too. It’s right that we measure students’ progress in terms of their ability to analyse historical issues with respect to certain questions (eg cause and effect). However, perhaps more emphasis needs to be placed on the ability to write a coherent account of what happened.

    A good thought experiment I’ve found is to ask ‘how would I explain this to a 5 year old?’ I think we’d start by ‘telling them the story’ (albeit a highly simplified one), rather than launching into unpicking lots of cause and effect.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s